The Obligatory “Top Ten of 2016” Post

The obligatory Top Ten of 2016 post – it is what it is. And what it is, more or less, is split into halves: 2016 releases and older stuff I picked up throughout the year.  There’ll likely be full reviews of a lot of these titles to follow over the next wee while.

Top 10 of 2016

Albums

Some 2016 releases I haven’t been able to check out or pick up yet including at least a couple of heavy hitters, most obviously David Bowie’s Blackstar and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree.  There are undoubtedly others.  I was sadly underwhelmed by Iggy Pop’s Post Pop Depression, ZZ Top’s Live Greatest Hits From Around The World (as perfunctory as its title) and The Cult’s latest but I’ll give them all a second chance at some point.  The same can’t be said for Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.  It’s had its second chances.

Albums: Top 5 2016 releases

5.  The Claypool Lennon Delirium – Monolith of Phobos
Endlessly entertaining psych-prog.
4.  The Monkees – Good Times!
Their first new album since 1996’s Justus and it’s rather good.
3.  Jeff Beck – Loud Hailer
Beck hooks up with London duo Bones to make what is easily his most compelling album since Guitar Shop.
=1.  Tedeschi Trucks Band – Let Me Get By
A lush, soulful, roots-rock diamond of an album.
=1.  The Rolling Stones – Blue and Lonesome
A covers album, no less; a wonderfully jagged-edge contemporary take on Chicago blues (reviewed HERE).

Albums: Top 5 “finds” of 2016

5.  Dave Arcari & the Helsinki Hellraisers – Whisky In My Blood (2013)
Yer raucous, rootsy alt.blues.
4.  Donovan – Barabajagal (1969)
Properly groovy psych-folk (with contributions from Jeff Beck).
3.  Prince and 3rdEyeGirl – Plectrumelectrum (2014)
One of Prince’s best latter-day releases, much of it straight-ahead heavy rock.
2.  James Gang – Rides Again (1970)
No matter how much music you listen to over the years, there’s always a stone classic that’s passed you by.  Damn!
1.  Eli Radish – I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier (1969)
Outlaw Country forerunner, a set of covers of wartime songs (from the American Civil War through to Vietnam) given the Woodstock-generation treatment.  I’d been ages looking for this one and it was worth it.

Movies.  

I didn’t get to see half of what I might have wanted to; cinema is a too-expensive night out these days.  I’ll no doubt catch up on home releases (anyway, this blog is meant to be about physical formats, right?).

I’m sick to death of superhero movies, though.  I made the mistake of double-billing Batman v Superman and Captain America: The Winter Soldier in one seemingly endless night; watched through heavy eyes, it turns out they’re exactly the same film.

Movies: Top 5 2016 releases

5. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Underrated comedy drama based on a true story starring Tina Fey as a TV reporter in Afghanistan.
4. 10 Cloverfield Lane
A tense and enjoyable wee sci-fi suspense thriller (even if the basic set up was pillaged from the pages of Métal Hurlant).
3. Hail, Caesar!
Brash, bright and loud – the Coen brothers at their least subtle with a very funny send up of McCarthy-era Hollywood.
2. The Nice Guys
A quality addition to Shane Black’s long list of quality buddy-comedy /thrillers.
1. The Lobster
Mental, though eh.

Movies: Top 5 “finds” of 2016

5. The Vanishing (1988)
Superior Dutch/French thriller which takes some surprising turns.  Until the dodgy ending, right enough, which unfolds as if from a rejected script for Tales of the Unexpected.
4. Empire Records (1995)
Hollywood knock-off of Clerks is way more entertaining than it has any right to be; a throwback to old rock’n’roll movies and ’70s fare like FM.
3. Bread (1971)
Obscure British movie trying to appeal to that elusive “hippies who are big Robin Askwith fans” demographic.  Lots of great footage of little-known rock bands of the day.
2. St. Ives (1976)
J. Lee Thompson directing Charles Bronson as a writer-cum-private-eye, with Jaqueline Bisset being all sexy-like. Can’t go wrong.
1. Calvary (2014)
Bleakly funny, if ultimately just bleak.  Brendan Gleason, though.  Wow.

The Ultimate Warrior (1975)

There was none of your internet when I was a wean, none of your streaming, your satellite or cable TV, or indeed your video tape cassettes.  The telly was three channels, eventually four; great late-night movie programming, for sure, but that was your lot.  Much of my enthusiasm for films, particularly sci-fi and the likes, was stoked by reading about them.  I’d pore over the features in my dad’s back issues of Photoplay (the Empire of the ’70s) while all but memorising the likes of Denis Gifford’s Monsters of the Movies and especially Alan Frank’s Sci-Fi Now.

Sci-Fi Now was published on the back of the upsurge in popularity of “fantastic” genre films in the wake of the then recent successes of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  A slim volume – basically an extended essay on science fiction movies and their history – it served as my introduction to The Final Programme, Fantastic Planet, The Cars That Ate Paris, Death Race 2000, A Clockwork Orange … the list goes on.  There were loads of pictures too, most of them on the enticing side of weird.  I was fascinated by these movies, most of which I wouldn’t see for years.  Which brings me to The Ultimate Warrior – Frank is enthusiastic about Robert Clouse’s post-apocalyptic thriller (“an excellent and atmospheric movie”) while noting that the film’s violence was “pervasive and not for the squeamish”.

So, recently I sat down to watch The Ultimate Warrior for the first time.  Over the thirty-plus years since I first read it I’ve seen many if not all of the films from Frank’s book which had sparked my interest, most of them years ago and some of them now firm favourites.  It seemed unlikely that The Ultimate Warrior could live up to that kind of expectation.  As it turns out, while I won’t say it sits beside the very best in the genre, it’s a good film.

New York city of the near future (well, 2012) has been overrun with gangs and general lawlessness in the years following a worldwide ecological disaster which has rendered all food crops non-viable.  One city block is controlled by Baron (Max Von Sydow) who heads a peaceful community numbering among its members his pregnant daughter (Joanna Miles) and her husband, a botanist who has developed fertile plant seeds.  Also in the ranks is a young Stephen McHattie.  The rest of the neighbourhood is controlled by William Smith, whose villainous character is saddled with the name Carrot.  Yul Brynner stars as Carson, a sort of wandering mercenary who throws in his lot with Von Sydow’s group as their head of security.  He is tasked by Baron to take his daughter and son-in-law – and more importantly the crop seeds – to an island safe haven.  Cue plenty of fighting and a lengthy game of cat and mouse through the disused subway system as Carrot gives chase.

Firmly in the “deserted city streets” school of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, the film looks good and is competently directed by Enter the Dragon helmer Clouse.  Yul Brynner is good if oddly cast in a very physical role.  The jazzy score struggles to settle – slightly mismatched to the visuals in places, in others, such as a street chase scene, lending greatly to the atmosphere.  The film’s inconsistencies come close to derailing it – protagonists Brynner and Von Sydow – with their respective Russian and Swedish accents – are supposedly from the USA, the biological pandemic which has brought civilisation to its knees seems also to have somehow rendered guns and motorised transport unusable and the strange introduction to Brynner’s character – he stands motionless in the street for days until someone hires him – goes unexplained.  It seems to be setting up some kind of mystical martial arts hero as per the film’s title but once he’s on board with the Baron’s people, Carson is a perfectly normal guy – just one who’s particularly useful with a knife.  Surprisingly, the film isn’t nearly as violent as Alan Frank’s observations in Sci-Fi Now might have us believe.  While there is some grisly imagery, much of the actual cut and thrust, as it were, occurs off-camera.

There is a hint of optimism in there but with its bookending montages of stationary-shot landscapes and its largely grim view of human nature, The Ultimate Warrior is a downbeat, slightly melancholy film.  That atmosphere lends it weight beyond its limitations.

Tapes for my VCR: The Ultimate Warrior

Original UK Warner’s big box pre-cert release. Online purchase for £11.00

Alan Frank's Sci-Fi Now

Alan Frank’s Sci-Fi Now. Not sure if this is my original copy – it rings a very vague bell that I had to pick up a replacement in the dim and distant past.

They Live (1988)

Unemployed builder Nada (professional wrestling legend Roddy Piper) goes to LA looking for work and ends up staying in a shanty town where he begins to suspect that something Just Isn’t Right.  There’s a weird preacher, television hackers and Strange Goings On at the local church before things take a sinister turn when The Man raids the shanty town, leaving it in ruins.  Nada makes off with a box of contraband, finding that it’s full of gnarly looking sunglasses.  Then he puts a pair on and the film goes mental with ensuing skull-faced aliens, epic fisticuffs, a heavy dose of satire and Meg Foster out of Cagney and Lacey.

Although They Live features one of John Carpenter’s least effective self-composed (with Alan Howarth) scores, his direction remains masterful.  The film is first and foremost a science fiction thriller but serves just as effectively as action movie and satire. Carpenter’s patented nods to other filmmakers are in full effect here too, with a ’50s B-movie vibe to the sci-fi elements and a fight scene which pays tribute to the epic punch-up between John Wayne and Victor McLaglin (also an ex-wrestler) in John Ford’s The Quiet Man.  Interestingly, the VHS’ 4:3 cropping seems to have done no harm.  The framing looks fine for most of the movie including the action scenes, so it seems likely Carpenter was working with the two aspect ratios in mind.  Of course, it does looks great in widescreen too.

That fight, between Piper and Keith David, is a classic – one of the great onscreen brawls and not a stunt double in sight.  A straight five minutes of wince-inducing punishment via old school brawling and some pro wrestling moves (stunt coordinator Jeff Imada would go on to handle the celebrated fight choreography for the second two Bourne movies), it’s made all the more enjoyable by the ridiculousness of the situation; the fight is all over a pair of sunglasses.    

The sunglasses are the McGuffin which leads us squarely into satire-heavy sci-fi territory, setting the pace for the rest of the film.  If you haven’t seen the movie, skip this paragraph as it’s entirely spoilery.  The glasses in question have been developed by a rebel underground to expose a surreptitious alien invasion of Earth.  Put the shades on and you can see not only the real, skull-like faces of the aliens among us, but the true nature of the society they have built and influenced.  Consumer advertising reads: “OBEY”, “STAY ASLEEP”, “CONFORM” and “NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT”.  Paper money bears only the legend “THIS IS YOUR GOD”.  The truth is exposed in monochrome (as in “it’s all right there in black and white”).  It’s all kind of brilliant.

I was prompted to revisit this one after Roddy Piper’s death last month at the way-too-young age of 61. Here, at the height of his wrestling career, he turns in a solid, likeable performance which should have seen him go on to actual movie stardom, although he did amass quite a catalogue of B-movie credits over the years.  He even improvised the film’s most quotable line: “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass.  And I’m all out of bubblegum.”

They Live was a modest, low budget box office success on its release.  Given its premise it seems inevitable that it would go on to develop a strong cult reputation – and not just in the world of film fans.  A cursory YouTube search will show that conspiracy theorists and such-like – David Icke amongst them – have long adopted it as proof of a reptile illuminati alien shadow government, or whatever.  In any case, They Live is one of John Carpenter’s best, and I don’t say that lightly.

TAPES FOR MY VCR THEY LIVE

Big box ex-rental, online purchase @ £3.00.

TAPES FOR MY VCR THEY LIVE ALT COVER

Feel that ’80s marketing! Flip the cover for an alternative version, to suit the schlock-levels of your video store.

Aftermath (1982)

A couple of astronauts return to Earth only to find they’ve missed the apocalypse.  Wandering the ruins of L.A., they encounter mutant-zombie things, a kindly museum curator, hot hippie chicks, a wee boy, radioactive storms and a crazed gang of murderous rapists.  Along the way, they somehow knock up a handy laser cannon out of spare parts.

Seemingly a vanity project by Steve Barkett (star, writer, director, producer, film editor), Aftermath is also a family affair, with several additional Barketts credited.  A low budget indie production, it’s nothing if not ambitious.  Shot when affordable digital technology was still decades off, here the film stock, impressive designs and use of glass/matte-painting add up to a visually more pleasing confection than the kind of thing regularly offered up today by the likes of the SyFy channel for the DTV/VOD markets.

Another plus point is the enthusiastic stunt work, firmly rooted in the school of “why walk when you can do a forward roll?”.  In this age of gym-bred bodybuilding protagonists, Barkett himself is perhaps a little unimposing, more like Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation than any other of today’s pop culture he-men.  He nonetheless proves capable in action scenes and appears to be doing most of his own stunts, leaving pretty much no element of any set or location unclimbed or un-jumped over by the end titles.  In one scene he is skipping between buildings at a fair old height just because, well, why not?  There’s a hint of the spirit of the silent movie era about it all, with stars risking life and limb for The Shot. 

Aftermath (also known, misleadingly, as Zombie Aftermath) draws liberally from the post-apocalyptic, dystopian sci-fi movies of the ’70s.  As it was reportedly shot in 1978, Aftermath actually predates the release of Mad Max but there are certainly echoes of Planet of the Apes, Logan’s RunThe Omega Man, A Boy and His Dog and Damnation Alley.  In the end, the vibe is actually more like an extended and unusually violent episode of The Twilight Zone.  That helps to lift the whole project, along with an orchestral score that sounds like it could have come straight from an old Flash Gordon serial and some canny B-movie casting.  Roger Corman veteran Dick Miller lends his voice as a broadcaster, while legendary science fiction superfan, B-actor and originator of the term “sci-fi” Forrest J. Ackerman is onboard as the museum curator.  Perennial TV heavy-of-the-week Sid Haig, who would go on to B-movie immortality as Captain Spaulding in House of 1000 Corpses and The Devils Rejects, makes a great OTT villain.

This is exactly the kind of movie I want to stumble across.  I’d never heard of it when I saw a copy of the original UK VHS on eBay.  It was the box art that initially drew me in, spread out across the insert like a gatefold album, highlighting the film’s matte painting design.  Sure, the film itself displays many of the flaws you’d expect from a low-budget sci-fi/horror release – stilted dialogue, acting performances that vary wildly in quality, awkward pacing, sound issues, unintended humour.  All present and correct.  It’s got something, though. 

What I appreciate most about low budget independent filmmaking is the way that creative solutions are needed to realise creative ideas, something largely absent from a franchise-focussed modern mainstream industry built around tent-pole releases, where exploding spaceships and collapsing skyscrapers are an expensively rubber-stamped keystroke away. The enthusiasm, commitment and sheer determination that must have been involved in Aftermath‘s production shine through.  I used the term “vanity project” earlier, but I suspect “passion project” would be closer to the mark.

tapesformyvcr - Aftermath

Original UK big box ex-rental, about £9 online.